Twelve years in to our conflicts overseas, hundreds of men and women are returning home changed by their experience in combat. Some are able to transition into civilian life with little problem, others find themselves in trouble with the law. A new court program in Hawai'i is helping to treat our veterans, who've fallen on the toughest of times, by responding to those who've committed crimes with compassion and extra care-instead of prison time.
Not all battle wounds can be seen.
"Psychologically, they're traumatized. Emotionally, they're traumatized," describes Ronald Massey, a former Marine now serving as a mentor for fellow veterans.
Recent studies conducted by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, estimate one in four returning troops suffer from mental health conditions related to their service.
"A hundred percent come home a little broken, a little changed," said Massey, recalling his own experience after two tours in Vietnam. "They all come home a slightly different person than the one that left."
And for some, that means trouble. VA statistics also show one out of every nine incarcerated person is a veteran. But now, there's an alternative. Instead of sending veterans who commit crimes to prison – those who are eligible can get mental health and medical care from Hawaii's newly established Veterans Treatment Court.
"They were given the opportunity to die for us – well, they didn't thank God – and now, we're here to help them get beyond the troubles that they got themselves in," said Massey.
There are currently only three defendants in the program, which launched in January. Veterans who qualify must have cases in the Circuit Courts of the First Circuit with misdemeanor or felony charges relating to substance abuse and dependency or mental illness issues. The program is heavy on discipline and structure—designed to mimic their time in the service—which is why veterans are required to appear in court once a week with a status update on their treatment. To help them along the way, each is assigned a mentor – a fellow Veteran from the same military branch.
"There are people like myself, like the judge, like the Veterans Court – that are here to help them through those very stressful situations to a new life, a clean record and an opportunity to succeed," said Massey.
There are more than 100 Veterans Treatment Courts in the nation. The first one was established in Buffalo, New York in 2008. According to their records, not a single veteran who has completed the program has ever re-offended. Even with a 0% recidivism rate, the Veterans Court is not without criticism. Opponents have asked why similar programs don't exist for police officers, firefighters or other emergency responders who've also experienced traumatic events.
"Our veterans are the only ones who write a blank check to give everything they have to this country, including their lives," said Circuit Court Judge Edward Kubo, who presides over the Veterans Treatment Court Judge. "I don't buy into if you can't save all of them, don't save some of them. These are people who not only deserve our respect and support – we need to give back to them in a special way because of what they do for us and our freedoms."
If it sounds personal to Judge Edward Kubo, it's because it is. His father served in the Korean & Vietnam Wars. His son has been in combat in Iraq and Kuwait.
"Growing up, I've seen what happens to a military family when a loved one goes off to war. I've seen the struggles of the veterans when they come back from war," described Judge Kubo. "It's something that I need to do to make sure that all veterans are treated with respect and we give them the best shot that we can for their success in the future."
Right now, the biggest challenge the program faces is financing. According to Judge Kubo, the Court is still waiting for legislative creation— but in the meantime the judiciary has stepped forward to make it happen with their own resources. He says it's the right thing to do, though he wishes he'd never have a single defendant.
"In a dream world, we wouldn't have wars to cause the types of problems that we see these Veterans having," said Judge Kubo.
This is the first court of it's kind in the state. Both Maui & Hawai'i Island have already expressed interest in creating Veterans Treatment courts of their own.